IF THE BOOKIES always win, then Barney Curley is the exception that proves the rule.
For five decades now, the 74-year-old Fermanagh native has been outfoxing betting supremos with his ingenious schemes and astute gambles.
Curley first gained notoriety in 1975, when he devised an elaborate scheme in which he wisely backed a highly unfancied racehorse he owned named Yellow Sam. His gamble paid off, costing Irish bookmakers £300,000 (the equivalent today of £2.5million).
He hoped that Yellow Sam’s starting price would be around 20–1, though Curley knew that if large sums of money were being placed on the horse, his price would promptly drop, thus significantly reducing the potential earnings. Consequently, he ensured that he would compete at the National Hunt race at Bellewstown — an obscure track with only one public telephone in the vicinity.
Countless accomplices of Curley were located in bookmakers across the country with between £50 and £300 in their possession. Curley then rang six or seven people who in turn rang 10 others, as he invested £15,000, virtually his entire savings, into the gamble.
25 minutes before the start of the race, in the phone booth at Bellewstown, Benny O’Hanlon, a friend of Curley’s, pretended he needed to ring a dying aunt, which persuaded others to allow him to use the phone for a full half an hour, as off-course bookies tried and failed to contact their counterparts in order to lay off their liabilities.
Yellow Sam’s win made Curley a very rich man. He gained considerable fame as a result, while the triumph also enabled him to realise his dream and become a racehorse owner.
He continued to gamble big money thereafter, invariably on his own horses, and continued to amass significant wealth from his subsequent bets.
In 2010, Curley decided to try and emulate his feats of 1975. With the far more sophisticated world of modern bookmakers, it seemed a much greater challenge, yet he succeeded once again.
He won £3.9million — the biggest horse-racing betting coup in history — after he backed three winners in one day, though the fourth horse he backed — and ironically, the most highly fancied of them all — failed to perform to the expected standard, preventing Curley from acquiring approximately £15million in the process.
As a person, he has the type of self-assurance needed to succeed in horse racing. Even those who have crossed him over the years and felt the full brunt of his abrasive personality can’t help but feel begrudging admiration for what he has achieved.
And at the age of 74, he is still not averse to extreme gambles. He has only just admitted he was behind a four-horse betting coup that cost bookmakers an estimated £2 million last January (see below).
Furthermore, Nick Townsend, a journalist and close confidant of Curley has just written a book on his 2010 feat, entitled The Sure Thing: The Greatest Coup in Horse Racing History. It is being described as a sequel of sorts to his 1975 exploits, and follows Curley’s autobiography, which Townsend also helmed and was published to considerable acclaim in 1999.
The author has written The Sure Thing in close conjunction with Curley, along with a number of his associates.
So is the legendary figure just as eccentric as you’d imagine an obsessive gambler with meticulous planning skills and uncommonly astute judgement to be?
“He’s a maverick in some ways,” Townsend tells TheScore.ie. “He’s not a man who could work for anybody else. He needs to do his own thing. He’s very ingenious. He comes up with a lot of ideas. With some of us, caution kicks in and you say, you can’t possibly do that. But he will have a bash at it, he will have a go. People refer to him as a legend of punters. He’s just very unusual. For most of us, when we have a bet on something big or small; if we win, we’re jumping in the air, or if we lose, we’re down. With Barney, you never know. If you’re sitting next to him, he could have won a million pounds that day and you wouldn’t know.
“Graham Bradley, the jockey who fell out with him, described him as the sort of man you wouldn’t want to cross. He’s got almost intimidating, inscrutable features. But in fact, he’s got a very dry sense of humour. He’s very generous, yet he doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”
And how does he ensure that those working with him on the various plots he devises are both trustworthy and competent?
“One of his associates said to me that with Barney, you’re either completely trustworthy, or you’re not on the team. He will test people out and when he first went over to Newmarket from Ireland, if there was any suggestion that the stable staff were passing tips on to anybody, they’d be out.”
Curley has been defying the odds all his life. Even his upbringing in Fermanagh would have surely put any sensible person off gambling — his father was a failed greyhound trainer. And for a while at least, Curley tried to pursue other activities aside from gambling.
Indeed, he had a series of false starts in life. He was a trainee Jesuit priest for four years until he got TB and, as Townsend explains, “he felt he wasn’t going to stay the pace”.
He also had a stint managing showbands. One of his acts, Frankie McBride, even had a significant hit with the song ‘Five Little Fingers’. Yet while he had the business skills to forge a successful career in the industry, he admitted to having no interest in music itself and thus, lacked the passion to persevere in the field.
“It was the same thing with running a nightclub,” Townsend adds. “He had all these kids turning up who had problems with drugs and he didn’t know anything about it. It just appeals to him. It’s like a challenge.
“He was also a failed bookmaker, which takes a bit of doing. He used to go to Celtic Park and set up with all the other bookmakers and because he was too generous to get the custom, he ended up without any money.”
Ultimately however, he couldn’t resist the lure of gambling and horse racing in particular.
“The local chemist in Irvinestown, where he comes from, said: ‘Don’t do this Barney, you’d be mad to.’ But in a sense, it was to try and prove everybody wrong.”
Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport
(Jockey Graham Bradley has “begrudging respect” for Curley despite the pair falling out)
So what is it that has made him so uniquely successful in the so-called ‘mug’s game’?
Townsend says that while there is undeniably an element of luck involved as with all betting, Curley has certain traits that have helped him to survive in such a harsh environment.
“He’s deliberately low profile, but you can only operate by doing everything very low key and not getting excited about it. He works over the basis of the year, or certainly when he had his horses — he said: ‘Right, this operation’s costing me so much a year, I’ve got to earn enough to cover that.’ So he’d look at it over the whole year. He wouldn’t say: ‘I’ve had a good day today, that’s great.’
“He’s like a businessman or a trader — someone who invests, in what to many people would be a risky way, but to him, it’s not.
“He’s also a good judge of people. He’s very dogmatic about certain issues. We have discussions about certain things like religion and he will ask me certain things on everything. And I’ll say what I think and he’ll look at me and I’ll think: ‘Is he disapproving [of what I say]’. I never quite know. He takes in a lot and sieves it all through.”
And speaking of religion, despite his aborted attempt to become a priest, he remains a devout Catholic, attending mass on a regular basis.
His faith inspired him to set up a charity in Zambia, after his teenage son tragically died in a car crash in 1995.
“In the 90s, he used to say: ‘I don’t want my gravestone to say he took however million it was from the bookmakers…’ He wanted to be known for being more than just a successful gambler. Many people would be happy with that, but he wasn’t.
“He got into various other things — he was a teetotal owner of a pub, the Cheltenham Arms, in Omagh. He got the proceeds from winning on a horse called Crisp at Cheltenham. He also ran a nightclub for a long time [after Crisp's win]. At one stage, he was heading a consortium that was possibly going to take over Sunderland football club. He’s one of these guys who thinks of ideas. Most of us think: ‘If I do that, it’s going to cost me a lot of money and it’s not going to work.’ Whereas he thinks: ‘It’s going to cost me a lot of money, but it could just work.’”
And given that many religious figures tend to disapprove of vices such as gambling, does he ever feel conflicted about what he does for a living?
“He does the betting because he enjoys the challenge. As far as I’m aware, he doesn’t need the money these days. A lot of the proceeds go to Zambia and he’s not just a figurehead, he goes out there several times a year. So he wouldn’t see any conflict, no.”
(Curley argues with John McCririck during an episode of ‘At the Races’)
Conflict does exist, however, in his relationship with the bookmakers. If not antipathy, there is certainly tension there, although as Townsend points out, all of Curley’s endeavours have been within the realms of legality, and so it is unfair to accuse him of committing ‘scams,’ as some have done.
“I think his prime concern is that the bookies don’t put enough back into horse races, so therefore, at the lower end, the prize money is very little. Nobody has to own a racehorse — I’ve done it in halfs and thirds and I’ve had wins, but unless you’re very lucky, you can’t expect to make much.
“If you own one horse, you’ve got to win seven reasonable races a year just to cover your costs and he feels that the bookmakers, with the money they make, should put more into it. He says the punters can’t win basically.
“Very few professional gamblers are going to be around [as long as him]. If you’re sensible, you get what you can out of it and get out, because it’s too high risk. He’s been going since the 80s and he only does it because he enjoys the challenge.”
Similarly, the bookmakers, were clearly, at the time, perturbed at the various losses they suffered as a result of Curley’s bets — after Yellow Sam triumphed, they paid him the winnings in single notes, filling 108 bags.
However, ultimately it could be argued that Curley has done more good than harm to the betting industry, on account of the enormous publicity his actions have generated, not to mention the countless failed imitators he has potentially inspired.
Townsend himself has enjoyed good fortune from covering Curley’s endeavours over the years. Previously a local sports reporter, he was suddenly appearing in national newspapers on account of his coverage of Yellow Sam’s triumph, while a book on Curley would subsequently follow, enabling him to become a highly respected journalist who’s since worked on projects with several other renowned sports personalities, including Ben Ainslie and Steve Redgrave.
“It was just one of those things that happened — it was fate. I used to work on the racing desk and we used to do the cards and tips, which I wasn’t too bad at in my limited way. They said would I have a go at doing a piece on him and it ended up being three pieces on him. So that can’t do you any harm.”
Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport
(Golden Fleece — the horse that cost Curley approximately £250,000)
And does he see any similarities between Curley and the likes of Redgrave and Ainslie, who are similarly successful at what they do?
“I can sit with them and it’s fascinating because these guys won five and four Olympic gold medals, which takes a little bit of doing. But Barney’s different in a sense. He’s like a fictional character that’s real — like a character out of a Dick Francis novel. He’s made it interesting and I’ve kept the gambling side at arm’s length. I don’t ask him what’s going to win or what’s not going to win. I stay away from that to keep a professional distance. We go and have lunch occasionally and we chat about everything not to do with racing.
“You’ve got to be very confident in your abilities. They need to have a touch of arrogance in the best sense of the word — like a top footballer. And clearly Redgrave and Ainslie have got to have that supreme confidence in themselves and Barney has that too. You can’t have doubts. With his betting, he’s got to go in wholeheartedly. It doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to have to win it every time and there are examples in the book, where he lost large amounts of money.”
One such occasion was his failed bet on a horse called Golden Fleece in the 80s. Curley had £250,000 staked on the outcome (the equivalent of £1million today). And for once, the normally unflappable punter was stunned by the loss.
“Even to place that bet, you’ve got to have complete confidence but you also have to take the knocks if it doesn’t work out,” Townsend says. “You’ve got to be tough enough to take it. You’ve just got to think tomorrow’s another day. But he’s never chased losses. He’s never lost a lot of money and thought: ‘Right, now I’ve got to get it back.’ He’s completely logical and rational, and he may wait months before another bet.
“After that Golden Fleece loss, he did doubt himself then, when he went over to California with his family to get over it. But that’s very rare. All trainers have an advantage because they know how fit and prepared their horses are from their work on the gallops — he has that. The difference with him is that he has the knowledge and the information, but he keeps it to himself.”
Such unfortunate occurrences as the Golden Fleece debacle are a warning to those seeking to be the next Barney Curley — a point that Townsend, aware that the book could be perceived as glamourising gambling, was keen to emphasise.
“Even Barney says it’s virtually impossible to win money as a gambler, even as a professional gambler, if you do it all the time,” he explains.
“The last thing he’d do is encourage people. He’s not like a successful entrepreneur who says that anybody can get out and do this. He’s basically saying that he’s one of the lucky few.
“Of the quartet that ran in 2010, the fancied one, the one he thought they could all depend on, got turned over and was nowhere near [to winning]. So hopefully it’s a lesson to everybody that it’s an uncertain business.”
The Sure Thing: The Greatest Coup in Horse Racing History is published by Century. More details here.